Lust for life

Les Blank’s films are about food, music, art and passion in any form

BLANK SLATE Les Blank’s films range widely in subject matter, as these pictures suggest.<br>A still from <i>The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins</i> (1969).

BLANK SLATE Les Blank’s films range widely in subject matter, as these pictures suggest.
A still from The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969).

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Documentary filmmaker Les Blank tells an amusing story about the time his fledgling career almost crashed and burned.

It was 1967, and he was working on his fourth short documentary, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, about the music and life of the legendary country blues man. After the first day of shooting in Hopkins’ hometown of Centerville, Texas, the singer bluntly informed the crew that he’d sung 10 songs that day and figured that was “plenty enough” for a movie and besides he was sick and tired of having people “hanging around filming and recording everything that he did said and sung,” as Blank puts it. “He then demanded that we pay him the balance of what we owed him and go back to California.”

What they owed him was about all the money they had. Blank and his crew had been sleeping on floors for lack of funds. Blank started packing up, feeling “overwhelmed by disappointment” that he didn’t have enough material for a film. By this time Hopkins was playing cards with some friends. Blank asked him what the game was, and Hopkins, a canny man, offered to teach him how to play.

Blank, right, with German film director Werner Herzog during shooting for Herzog’s <i>Fitzcarraldo</i>, which Blank documented in <i>Burden of Dreams</i> (1982).

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Blank borrowed some money from his crew and joined in. He lost, of course, but Hopkins invited him to stick around to play the next day. “After borrowing some more money and losing it just as quickly as the night before, I sadly contemplated the fix I was in,” Blank has written. “Lightnin’ chuckled victoriously and said that maybe we weren’t so bad after all, and allowed us to hang around for another six weeks of shooting. …”

The result is one of the most enchanting ethnographic films about American folk music ever made. What makes it work, even as it establishes a signature style, is that Blank makes no effort to impose a traditional documentary structure—there’s no narrator “explaining the blues and Lightin’s place in its development,” as he says—on his story. Instead, he threads sequences together “with stitches of feeling that move the film along much like the structure of music itself.”

He’s since made many other films about music, and particularly roots folk music, from the Norteño of the Texas-Mexico border (Chulas Fronteras) and Afro-Cuban drumming (Sworn to the Drum) to Cajun/zydeco (Yum, Yum, Yum!) and even Polish-American polka (In Heaven There Is No Beer?). All have his characteristic style, which is warm, appreciative, laconic and respectful. Blank has a wonderful ability to let his images and sounds speak for themselves, to stay out of the way and let his stories emerge organically, in a way that appeals to the viewer’s emotions and esthetic sense well before it engages his or her intellect.

In his four decades of filmmaking—he’s made more than 30 films and worked, as camera operator or editor, on many more—he’s become one of the most admired documentarians in the world, one who is respected for both his work and his steadfast—some might say ornery—independence. He’s been the subject of several major retrospectives (including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and FILMEX in Los Angeles) and the recipient of numerous awards, including the British Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and the Golden Gate Award “Best of Festival” of the San Francisco Film Festival (both for Burden of Dreams) and a Golden Hugo from the Chicago Film Festival (for The Blues According to Lightin’ Hopkins). In 1990, he received the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker.

A Mardi Gras “Indian” from <i>Always for Pleasure</i> (1978).

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Chicoans will have a rare opportunity to enjoy Blank’s work in coming weeks, as the University Film Series, in collaboration with the Chico State University departments of Art and Art History and Communication Design, present a three-part “Les Blank Film Festival” on successive Tuesdays, April 8, 15 and 22. Blank himself will be present at the third in the series.

Though most of his films are ethnographies, Les Blank is most famous for Burden of Dreams, his feature-length portrait of the visionary German director Werner Herzog as he attempted to film Fitzcarraldo, about a half-mad 19th-century Irishman named Fitzgerald who attempted to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle—an impossible movie about an impossible task. Blank’s documentary is one of those rare movies about movies that are arguably better than the original.

Herzog’s film was beset with problems almost from the beginning, when its star, Jason Robards, came down with dysentery a third of the way into shooting. Everything filmed to that point had to be scrapped.

Klaus Kinski replaced Robards, but things went from bad to worse. A border war broke out between local Indian tribes, the film’s location had to be moved 1,200 miles, there were innumerable equipment breakdowns, and financiers began to sweat, especially when they realized that Herzog’s tour de force in the film involved pulling a full-sized riverboat out of the river and over a mountain.

Blank and a feathered friend during the filming of <i>Burden of Dreams</i>.

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All this was taking place in the heart of the Amazon jungle, with its heat, bugs, snakes, rain and, for both the European technicians and the Indian extras and laborers, deadening boredom. Blank’s film is as much about the friction between these groups, and within them, as it is about Herzog and his movie.

Still, Herzog emerges as a fascinating character, a man who is capable of being almost preternaturally calm in the most distressing circumstances but whose passion and artistic commitment bubble, like madness, just below the surface. There’s an amazing scene, shot after months of delay and time spent stuck in the jungle, when Herzog, speaking with his same steady articulation but with a fevered glint in his eyes, expresses his terror at the jungle’s fecundity and rapacity: “It’s the enormity of perfected and overwhelming murder. … We have to humble ourselves in the face of all this overwhelming misery, fornication …” It’s astonishing.

Blank’s other, earlier film about Herzog is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, about the time Herzog came to Berkeley to honor a dare he’d made to his friend Errol Morris: “If you make a film, I’ll eat my shoe.” Morris made the movie, Gates of Heaven, about a pet cemetery, its owners and clients, to rave reviews. Blank’s short (20 minutes) film, which will be shown with Burden of Dreams, is a charming, sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful look at creativity, artistic daring and friendship. By the way, Herzog really does eat the shoe.

Les Blank grew up in Tampa, Fla., and attended college at Tulane, in New Orleans, where he found “not only abundant opportunities for drinking and dancing until dawn in all-night bars in the French Quarter, but a rich party life in the streets occasioned by periodic jazz funerals and the many other occasions that call for someone buying a keg of beer and hiring a jazz band to parade around with.”

Twenty years after graduating, he returned to New Orleans in 1978 to film Always for Pleasure, a 58-minute work that is easily the sweetest, most soulful movie about Carnival season in the Big Easy that’s ever been made. A spicy blend of festivities footage (Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, various “social and pleasure club” marches), musicians (Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, the Wild Tchoupitoulas) and—a Blank trademark—bits about food and feasting, this is a colorful love letter to New Orleans written by someone who knows it well.

The title of the film is one that could be applied to Blank’s entire output. This is a man who has managed to make delightful, honest and respectful movies about people like himself, people who live passionately, who love to eat and drink and make music or other forms of art, people for whom living with authenticity is more important than success as it is normally defined today.

Blank himself has done that. He’s made the movies he wanted to make just as he wanted to make them and sold them in the same way, through his own company, Flower Films ( Some are short (10 minutes or so), some long, some funny, some serious, all handmade with deep affection for their subjects. As Time magazine critic Jay Cocks has written, "I can’t believe that anyone interested in movies or America … could watch Blank’s work without feeling they’d been granted a casual, soft-spoken revelation."